A Volkswagen Fit For A Rolex PresidentBy Richard Holt
You are pairing a Rolex with a Volkswagen — how dare you! But this is not just any VW, this is the Karmann Ghia, a piece of design that exists in a category all of its own.
One of the pioneers of industrial design was an American called Walter Dorwin Teague Jr, who worked for a firm started by his father in the early 20th century that designed everything from Kodak cameras and dentists’ chairs, to jet interiors and the ahead-of-its-time Marmon 16 motorcar. Walter Sr taught his son the importance of putting artistry into all things, saying that even everyday objects are capable of “augmenting the sum of total beauty in our world and extending the appreciation of beauty into those realms where it is most vitally effective — the home, the factory, the shop and the street.”
In the mid-1960s, following his father’s death, Walter Jr was asked to write a list of the most beautiful objects his well-trained eyes had ever seen. It included an Eames chair, an Olivetti typewriter and a Carlsberg beer bottle. The items were “ranked in the order in which they occurred to him” and it just happens that the very first thing that came to mind was the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.
You don’t have to be an expert to see that this is an exceptionally beautiful car, with striking lines undimmed by the passing of almost 70 years since it was designed. Exactly who is responsible for those looks is a subject of some debate, with more than one designer claiming chief credit. One sure thing is that it would never have existed without input from two great European design houses, as well as Chrysler’s chief designer Virgil Exner — the man who did more than anyone else in the 1950s to bring in the age of unrestrained US motoring, characterised by angular silhouettes and magnificent tail fins.
Source of Inspiration
Two of Exner’s early-1950s designs are credited with providing the original inspiration for the car pictured here. Both the Chrysler d’Elegance and K-310 concept cars were designed by Exner, but the bodies were made by the Italian coachbuilder Ghia. The models reflected styling themes already developed by designer Mario Boano, who was then in charge of Ghia. This has led some people to claim that Boano himself created the first sketch of the Karmann Ghia independently of Exner’s designs.
Whoever had the biggest hand in the design, the idea to build the car came from another coachbuilder in war-damaged Europe, the German firm Karmann. The company was making a decent recovery from the ravages of war, pressing out steel bodies for VW and others, and by the early 1950s Karmann wanted to put its own name to a car. Karmann bosses approached Ghia to help develop a body for a car with mechanicals to be lifted directly from Volkswagen.
The Karmann Ghia, with its beautiful flowing lines, was unveiled in 1955. Despite the gorgeous looks, at first it was considered something of a tough sell. Under the body the car was mechanically identical to the VW Beetle. Yet because of the complexity of the painstakingly hand-built bodywork, the Karmann Ghia was put on sale for almost twice as much as the original people’s car.
It was still far cheaper than more exotic Europeans from the likes of Porsche and Ferrari. The little 1,200c.c. air-cooled engine did not give it enough power to be considered a true sports car, but its low-slung, aerodynamic body did at least make it a touch quicker and better handling than the Beetle. Even today, the Karmann Ghia is a blast to chuck around. And the looks are as captivating now as they were then. A convertible version followed in 1957, helping capture American buyers. And the buyers voted. By the time production ended in 1975, almost half a million Karmann Ghias had been made.
These large numbers, combined with the car’s modest underpinnings, mean that despite the high-water mark as a piece of design, as a classic the Karmann Ghia is still a bargain. Convertibles are rarer and more expensive, but for many people the coupe is the purer, more beautiful design. A few years ago you could buy a Karmann Ghia for peanuts, and though prices have been solidly on the rise for a while, you can still pick up a nice coupe like this one for well under the £20,000 (USD26k).
That kind of money puts it in similar territory to the rather splendid white-gold Rolex Day-Date that has hitched a ride in the red-leather interior. The Day-Date was introduced in 1956, the same year that the first customers started to get their Karmann Ghias.
There is of course nothing modest about the underpinnings of the Day-Date — or the bodywork for that matter. Trying to tell anyone — let alone readers of this magazine –that Rolex is a high-quality watch brand is like telling boxing fans that Floyd Mayweather knows how to slip a punch. But even by Rolex standards, the Day-Date, which later became widely referred to as the President, upped the game considerably.
The Day-Date was the first watch to have a full day display, sitting proudly across the top of the dial, and it
was available exclusively in gold or platinum and also debuted an exclusive gold bracelet with semi-circular, three-piece links.
The Day-Date was not the first Rolex to have presidential associations. In 1951, five years before the Day-Date, Rolex presented General Dwight D. Eisenhower with a yellow gold Datejust to celebrate the production of their 150,000th chronometer-certified watch and to recognise Eisenhower’s leadership in World War II. The watch was engraved with the initials “DDE” and five stars to denote Eisenhower’s military rank. When he became president in 1953 he was often seen wearing the Datejust and was once photographed wearing it on the cover of Life magazine.
Lyndon B. Johnson became the first U.S. president to wear the Day-Date and he was first spotted wearing it in 1965. The following year Rolex — not at all shy about bigging-up the association — put out a magazine advertisement showing a man’s hand picking up a red telephone, with the elegantly cuffed wrist sporting a yellow gold Day-Date alongside the slogan “The presidents’ watch”. The placing of that apostrophe is not an accident — this was not just the watch for one president, but for all of them. The brand wasn’t exactly un-presidential before, but the Day-Date put the word into the Rolex lexicon. Although the watch itself doesn’t bear the name President, the fact that Rolex uses the word for the Day-Date bracelet, that makes it damn-near official.
Rumor has it Rolex has offered a Day-Date to every US president since LBJ. It is not known how many have taken up the offer. Gerald Ford was seen wearing one, but well into retirement. The most famous president’s President, however, was never worn. Marilyn Monroe is said to have presented a yellow gold Day-Date to John F. Kennedy in 1962, the same night she breathily sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden.
Kennedy had such a turbulent private life that the Cuban Missile Crisis must have seemed like a bit of light relief. So to avoid getting himself in any more trouble he apparently told an aide to simply “get rid of it”. The watch emerged at auction years later, complete with caseback engraved “Jack, with love as always from Marilyn” and a love poem Monroe had put in the box.
Later in the 20th century, sadly presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton found themselves trying to bolster their populist credentials by wearing Timexes. This may have suited Bush, but Clinton was definitely playing — he is known to love a fancy watch, and since being freed from the shackles of office the randy old dog has been seen wearing everything from Panerai and Franck Muller, to Roger Dubuis and A. Lange & Sohne.
Just as the Karmann Ghia is a contrast of rudimentary mechanicals and beautifully hand-built bodywork, the Day-Date is a watch of contradictions. The Day-Date has only ever been available only in gold or platinum — save for a half a dozen stainless steel examples made in the late 1950s — so even by Rolex’s standards it was always a premium model. Yet it was also the model that saw Rolex really start to cut loose.
Over the years the Day-Date has been sold in a wonderfully unrestrained range of dials including onyx, sodalite, meteorite and enamel dials in all shades of the rainbow. These dials have also been set with gems including sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds — often complemented by a matching gem-set bezel.
Rolex today says the Day-Date “has been worn by more presidents, leaders and visionaries than any other watch”. That may well be true, but because Rolex decided to bring the funk, it has also caught the eye of as diverse a range of celebrity watch lovers as Michael Jordan, Jay Z, Conor McGregor, Jennifer Aniston, Rihanna and Tony Soprano.
Both the Karmann Ghia and the Day-Date are brilliant pieces of design that certainly, to borrow Walter Dorwin Teague’s phrase, augment “the sum of total beauty in our world”. And they both offer endless appeal to anyone with taste, whether you are a president, a rapper, or a fictional mafia boss.